Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild

What the hell happened in the USA in 2016? I gaped at the anger that kicked liberals in the teeth on election night. Take that f’ers. Confused, I made an effort to better understand the right. I asked questions with an open mind. What I got was disturbing: “the Koran orders Muslims to kill us”, “climate change is just weather.” What bothered me most was the cold anger, now thawing under a Trump star. Just as I was about to slink back into my echo chamber I came across an important book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild. A Berkeley liberal, Hochschild spent five years in arch-conservative Louisiana, bayou country, listening to what the other side had to say.

“An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can be make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” My background has some similarities with the Louisianans, coming from a large, low-income, Christian family. It is my memory, and Hochschild observes, that the people are kinder and more generous than their politics and theology. That said, I share little with the Louisianans today, having raised a small family on a dual income, being an atheist. The differences explain things. For example, I consider it my job as a citizen to pay taxes and help others. Louisianans hate taxes, but not for lack of caring of course. They tithe through the church so taxes seems redundant. Unfortunately the church does not scale to solving a global problem like the environment.

The environment is the key paradox of the book. Hochschild returns to it in every chapter. Louisiana is the most polluted state and yet it is also the strongest against environmental regulation of corporations. Across the states, those with higher exposure to pollution are more likely to be strong Republicans. How can this be? Certainly, less regulation leads to more jobs but toxic exposure is destroying their land and families. Short term risk can be rational but it seems to me that Louisianans are getting numb to the damage. They are not alone. Many people need a hard shake to see that green jobs also put food on the table.

Education is part of the difference. Education qualifies people for jobs, yes, but it is not just about university degrees. It is also about knowing how to find and analyze information. Fox News can be a source of information but it should not be the only one. The collapse of traditional journalism has left a vacuum of authority. People fail to check the source of their news. It is a festering pot for ignorance. Hochschild calls it a deep story, a psychology of resentment about being left behind. Liberal insults about rednecks and white trash cut deeply. Self-sufficient and gritty to the core, they do not whine like liberals. Still they do not recognize themselves. They are strangers in their own land, a Biblical reference to alienation. This is what happened in the USA in 2016.

It is important to figure this all out, to prevent spillover into Canada and beyond, to disarm the anger before it escalates into hate and violence and war. We must meet anger with open-mindedness, good information, and loving-kindness. Strangers in Their Own Land is a worthy book in this campaign.